Teachers must not be deterred from taking pupils on school trips because they fear prosecution if an accident happens, said schools minister Segolene Royal.
Referring to recent cases where school principals or teachers have been found responsible for accidents under criminal law, she said a working group was to investigate links between administrative tribunals, which usually consider cases concerning public officials, and the criminal courts. Judgment by a civil service tribunal, she believed, was "a lesser evil" but stressed that negligence would still be recognised under any new procedures.
Teaching unions have been worried for some time that their members could be found criminally responsible for events beyond their control. In one case, a primary teacher was given an 18-month suspended sentence, following an incident at Drac in 1995 when a burst dam resulted in six children and a helper drowning. On appeal, the sentence was increased to two years.
The Federation de l'Education Nationale, a group of teachers' unions, called for a boycott of school trips until instructions were clearly laid down. Teachers' fears were reinforced last December when a primary-school director received a 10-month suspended sentence after a coach accident near Aix-en-Provence, in which three children and the driver died.
Although the director was not present, the court ruled that he was responsible for safe transport and questioned his decision to authorise an outing of 20 pupils with only one teacher accompanying them. Calling for a halt to trips, the primary teachers' union said that "the current situation still does not allow teachers to do their work in the necessary conditions of calm and security".
But the schools minister said last week that she wanted school trips to continue, and promised to introduce a rational regulatory system.
A report by the education ministry's inspectorate also identified as a problem the status of classroom assistants and parents who help out on trips, but have no responsibility for incidents.